Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Perfect’ Vayikra – Shabbat HaGadol 5781

“Baby, I’m dancing in the dark with you between my arms

Barefoot on the grass, listening to our favourite song

When you said you looked a mess, I whispered underneath my breath

But you heard it, darling, you look perfect tonight”  – Ed Sheeran, “Perfect”

The Book of Vayikra begins with a deep dive into the laws of sacrifices. The first sacrifice discussed is the Olah sacrifice, given either voluntarily as a gift to G-d or as atonement for a sin[1]. The Torah begins its discussion of the Olah sacrifice with the following verse [Vayikra 1:3]: “If his offering is an Olah from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish (tamim). He shall bring it willingly (lir’tzono) to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before G-d.” The translation of the word “lir’tzono” is a subject of debate among the medieval commentators. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in Spain in twelfth century, explains that “lir’tzono” means “that he must offer the sacrifice voluntarily, and not out of obligation.” Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, a contemporary of the Ibn Ezra who lived in Orleans, France, explains that “lir’tzono” means that the sacrifice should be acceptable to G-d. The point of contention between the two commentators lies in the direct translation of the word “lir’tzono” – literally “according to his will”. The Ibn Ezra posits that “his will” is referring to the will of the person offering the sacrifice, meaning that he must offer the sacrifice wilfully and without coercion. The Bekhor Shor, in contrast, understands that “his will” is referring to “G-d’s will”, or “His will”, meaning that the sacrifice should be accepted by G-d and thus serve its designated purpose of bringing man closer to G-d. This is accomplished by offering an animal “without blemish”. G-d deserves nothing less than the very best.

At first glance, it seems that the explanations of the Ibn Ezra and the Bechor Shor are orthogonal. And yet, it turns out that the two explanations can be fused in way that offers a novel insight. In order to see how, we must first gather some background material. Our first stop is in the Talmud in Tractate Arachin [21a]: “Although one obligated to bring burnt offerings and peace offerings does not achieve atonement until he brings the offering of his own volition… nevertheless the court coerces him until he says: I want to do so.” Prima facie, the Talmud is taking the position of the Ibn Ezra, that a sacrifice must be offered wilfully. But what happens when a person sins but he refuses to bring an Olah? The Talmud answers that the court is permitted to use force – physical, monetary, or otherwise – to convince him to bring his sacrifice. In order to comply with the Torah’s requirement of a wilful sacrifice, the Talmud implements legal acrobatics: the court does not force a person to bring a sacrifice – it forces him to understand that he wants to bring a sacrifice of his own volition.

The next step in fusing the explanations of the Ibn Ezra and the Bechor Shor requires a profound understanding of the concept of blemishes and sacrificial animals. In describing Olah requirements, the Torah uses the word “tamim” – literally “perfect”. Ostensibly, any animal that is not completely perfect cannot be offered as a sacrifice. The Torah proceeds to give a list of blemishes that can prevent an animal from being offered as a sacrifice [Vayikra 22:22-24]. These blemishes include broken limbs, boils and crushed testes. The Talmud in Tractate Bechorot [37a] rules that any defect that is visible and permanent is classified as a “blemish”. Further, an animal with even temporary blemishes cannot be offered until the blemishes have healed. The Talmud adds another category of defect that can render sacrifice unfit. This category includes animals that are sick, have a serious internal injury (terefa), or are very old. These defects differ from blemishes in that they are invisible. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt am Main in the nineteenth century, notes that the laws of blemishes begin with the words [Vayikra 22:21] “It must be perfect to be accepted (Tamim yi’heye l’ratzon) – it shall not have a defect”. Rabbi Hirsch teaches that were the Torah merely to simply state that the animal should not have a defect, then it would have been permissible to offer unhealthy animals as long as they did not possess any visible defects. It is the Torah’s demand that the offering be “tamim” – “perfect” – that renders old and sick animals unfit. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the purpose of a sacrifice is to metaphorically offer ourselves to G-d. Our will (ratzon) must be superseded by His will. We must give G-d only our very best. When the Talmud teaches that we force the recalcitrant person to admit that he wants to give a sacrifice, it is because the Talmud cannot visualize a reality in which a person is would willingly disconnect himself from G-d[2].

Nevertheless, not all imperfections render an animal unfit for sacrifice. Animals that are not perfect specimens, such as one that has eyes or ears of unequal size or one with abnormally small ears, are still considered fit for sacrifice[3]. This is counterintuitive: Either an animal is perfect or it is not. An animal that is not one hundred percent perfect does not meet the Torah’s requirements and should thusly not be offered as a sacrifice.

This conundrum can be addressed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverski, who won[4] the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for their ground-breaking research in behavioural economics. Kahhneman and Tverski define the “Endowment Effect”. Consider a person, let’s call him Person A, who is an avowed Coldplay fan. How much is a ticket to a Coldplay concert worth to him? Let’s say that he decides that he likes Coldplay so much that he is willing to buy a ticket for two hundred dollars. Now imagine that Person A has a friend, Person B, who is also a huge Coldplay fan. Person B couldn’t buy ticket to the concert before it was sold out. He offers to buy the ticket off of Person A. How much will Person A demand for his ticket? The Endowment Effect states that Person A will demand significantly more than the price at which he purchased the ticket, not because he can make a quick buck, but because the act of owning the ticket has made it more valuable to him. Similarly, a person selling a home that he has lived in for thirty years will not notice or care about nuisances like worn carpet or peeling paint because he has become emotionally attached to his home. A prospective buyer, on the other hand, will more than likely notice these defects and will likely use them in negotiations to reduce the price of the home.

Leveraging the explanations of the Ibn Ezra, the Bechor Shor, Kahneman and Tverski, we can understand why in relation to sacrifices, “perfect” does not necessarily mean perfect. If a person we love has her hair is out of place, if she’s not dressed for the occasion, even though she might think she looks “a mess”, in our eyes she is perfect. When we offer a sacrifice to G-d and by doing so reattach ourselves to Him, when our will becomes His will, He does not attribute importance to small imperfections. In His eyes, we are perfect[5].

We can connect this idea to the holiday of Passover that we will be celebrating next week. At the Divine Revelation at Sinai, G-d introduces Himself to the Jewish People with the words [Shemot 20:2] “I am G-d who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt”. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, comments that “That act of bringing you out is alone of sufficient importance that you should subject yourselves to Me”. It was critical that G-d “purchase” the Jewish People from Pharaoh. The people who left Egypt were more than two-hundred years removed from the Land of Israel. Their connection to Judaism was vestigial. They were borderline unredeemable. Indeed, five minutes after receiving the Torah from G-d, Himself, they bowed to a cow. And yet, with all their blemishes, G-d keeps them. He cherishes them. With all of their imperfections, they remain, to Him, perfect.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] According to the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [36a], these include the performance of minor prohibitions and the non-performance of positive commandments.

[2] This explanation is offered by Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in the “Torah Temima” [ad loc].

[3] Rambam Hilchot Issurei HaMizbayach [2:4]

[4] Only Kahneman won the Nobel Prize. Tverski had died and the award is not given posthumously.

[5] G-d does not overlook all blemishes. Some are so detrimental that attempting to offer them is an affront.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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